7 Artists on Their Unsung Queer Icons
What is the role of icons in the LGBTQ community in 2018?
Traditionally, certain public figures acted as a lightning rod for an ostracised community. Ordained by some specific but hard to define set of qualities, their queerness lived less in the stars themselves than in the inscrutable spaces where hope, wish fulfilment and identity could be projected. Throughout the decades, LGBTQ icons have reflected our best selves back at us in myriad ways, questioning gender or portraying love, desire and pain in a language that, for decades, has chimed with queer experience.
Where once young people negotiating their sexuality had to look long and hard – and decode the signs – to see themselves represented in pop culture, there’s now an abundance of stars offering a spectrum of visibility. While a recent national LGBT survey proves that we still have a long way to go, there’s no denying that, for many of us living in the West, the stigma is not what it was. Yet, despite incremental acceptance of queerness – and its less welcome counterpart, appropriation – the importance of queer icons hasn’t waned. In fact, it seems to have been gifted a second life: on Twitter and Instagram, long-forgotten and intersectional LGBTQ histories are being retold, peeling back the privilege that allowed important figures to be pushed aside to make room for white, male, orthodox narratives in our own community.
On the most profoundly personal level, queer people will always find strength in those who access wells of power, desire and identity that aligns with their own. To help celebrate the UK’s ongoing Pride Season, we asked some of our favourite artists to shout out their unsung queer icons, from Victoria Ruiz to Christine McCharen-Tran and Lotic. Happy Pride.
Rachel Aggs – DIY punk guitarist
“Brontez Purnell is an American songwriter, dancer and writer based in the Bay Area. He writes hilarious and really smart books and zines, and his songs as Younger Lovers are these hedonistic queer punk anthems that make you feel so much less lonely and totally alive. I first heard of Brontez as a member of Gravy Train! They were a dance party band that were so unapologetically queer that they actually kind of scared me. Their shows were legendary and although I never went to one, as a closeted 18-year-old, even just hearing about them set my mind on fire. There were not many people of colour in the queer punk scene at the time, and when I met Brontez at a Younger Lovers show in London I thought he was incredibly cool and it gave me a lot of hope.
Undoubtedly, he should be a tonne more famous but he’s an inspiration to exactly the people to whom it’s the most important. The mainstream music press constantly fails to represent the black and brown queers who make guitar music and don’t fit neatly into one idea of what ‘black music’ is. Artists like Brontez challenge that narrative and remind us that we are the ones that invented rock ‘n’ roll and that black and brown people’s creativity is not a genre.
Listen to the I’m in the Band podcast with Alison Woolf (of Bratmobile fame). It’s an amazing interview series with legendary punk and riot grrrl musicians, and Brontez’s interview is my favourite of all of them! Read Since I Laid My Burden Down – Brontez’s book that came out last year.”
Christine McCharen-Tran – Discwoman co-founder
“Bronx rapper, Quay Dash, is unapologetic in all aspects of her artistry – from her stage presence to the content in her lyrics. [I discovered her via] Soundcloud and seeing her perform in NYC in a range of spaces: from queer/lesbian nights like GUSH to art-centric spaces like Pioneer Works. I love her collaboration with SOPHIE.”
Lotic – Houston-born club music disruptor
“Not unsung but I was going to say Xtina (Christina Aguilera)! That Stripped album really carried me through my adolescence! Both emotionally, and also as an example of how far one can go with their craft. Never really overlooked but she kinda fell off for people! But I’m so happy she’s seeing success again! I’d recommend Walk Away! Make Over! Prima Donna! Sex For Breakfast! Bobblehead!“
Shamir – Bedroom pop provocateur
“I think a great example of an unsung queer icon is Darby Crash from the Germs. Due to his drug habits and early death his life story is always discussed at the forefront but it’s not really well-known that he was queer. Learning later on in life that a punk icon that I always looked up to is, in fact, queer is a little small joy in a world with little representation.
I actually discovered the Germs at an early age during a deep The Go-Gos phase I had around middle school and wanted to learn all I can about them. I found out members of the Go-Go’s played in the Germs, and also Pat from the Foo Fighters was the original guitarist. I found myself instantly drawn to Darby’s energy and could never get enough of it. I think [he was overlooked] for the fact that he died so young and was only able to do one album, but the legacy still lives on.
There’s a Germs movie that is not great but entertaining and a nice “for dummies” type of introduction. It’s called What We Do is Secret. But also obviously listen to the record GI.”
Victoria Ruiz – Downtown Boys frontwoman
“I want to sing the praises for a stunning artist, scholar, and community organiser – Justice Gaines. I am greatly influenced by her work and was witness to her stitching together of the most crucial and often coarse fabrics of art, poetry, fighting against police brutality, and community healing in Providence, Rhode Island.
She has woven a flag of fierce conviction, desire and discipline so that she can sing the wails of experience both at the mic and now at the ballot box. She is running to be a city councillor in the most rich – and because of the colonisation of land that was once home to Cape Verdean migrants – one of the most white districts in Providence. Justice gives me hope in my queer dreams that we will not be deferred. I asked her three questions in preparation for this piece. Check out her poem I won’t make a wave unless given something to ripple against. This really sticks with me. Watch the video of Justice’s poem, Gender or Desperation, on her experience as a gender fluid woman above.
She has worked as an organiser and labour rights advocate with RI Jobs With Justice, served as an instrumental voice in activists’ push for the Community Safety Act, an ordinance against racial profiling and police brutality and served on the working group guiding its implementation as the Providence Community-Police Relations Act. She is also a world-renowned poet. She has travelled with poetry and slam teams and graces the stage with words that are codes for so many of the feelings that queer gender fluid people of colour know. Please read her own words below and support her work.”
Victoria Ruiz: What art are you currently working on?
Justice Gaines: This year, I made the decision to commit more firmly to my poetry. Over the last five years, I’ve focused primarily on spoken word and performance. Now, I’m exploring more how my work interacts with the page and the visual elements of language. I am also developing a show with my sister and fellow poet, Chrysanthemum Tran, that will blend performance, poetry and political reality. I hope to be publishing more and developing a manuscript within the next year to bring together much of my work.
VR: What is something you want us to know about you and why you believe in art?
JG: My art is most true in the moment it is created. I am constantly learning. I am always growing. Some of my poems that felt deeply visceral three years ago only make me laugh or smile now. I love that about art. It can be so intensely honest that it can’t last the test of time, because it’s not always meant to be permanent, it’s just meant to be true. Art can provide the most pure expression of power and passion. Art can grow and build and change. Art lends itself to truth.
VR: Why are you running for the city council?
JG: I am running for the city council because I am tired of seeing the communities in my city ignored by politicians who use history and tradition as an excuse to dismiss their needs. I’m running because the people of Providence deserve someone who fights for them with the same passion they commit to this city. I’m running because Providence is where I started my art, Providence is where I came into my womanhood. Providence is where I learned what compassion truly meant. I owe who I am to Providence, so it’s time I pay that back.
Evvol – Berlin dark wavers
“Our unsung queer icon is Emma McKenna, who writes wonderful, raw, political-minded songs about love, loss and heartache. She’s a singer-songwriter and professor based in Hamilton, Canada. She was inspired by the riot grrrl movement because she wanted to fuse art with feminism and uses music as an effective public medium through which to express herself. She started out in a band called Galaxy before embarking on her own solo career and also took a degree in women and queer studies. She is a multidisciplinary writer and a PhD candidate in English and Cultural Studies and that is currently her main focus.
We were introduced to her through our friend Katie Stelmanis from the band Austra when we were playing shows in Toronto a few years ago. We know her personally and Jane played bass for her when she toured Europe a while back. She also produced her EP The Might which is worth checking out. Emma’s music has never been about making money or fame, even if you want to buy her music all proceeds go to Interval House in Hamilton: a shelter for women leaving abuse. You can listen to her music on her Bandcamp.”
MIKEY. – Berlin drag superstar
“Mother Nature is the most unsung queer icon of our contemporary world. She is the most obvious yet also the least obvious queer icon. I don’t think there are many of us as queers who acknowledge she is so expressively queer. Mother Nature doesn’t try to be something, she just is. The same goes for queerness of oneself. Once you know you are and you are proud of it, you become a force of nature within yourself and for society. Some of my favourite queer examples of nature: the sunset sky, shades of sherbet orange, musky reds, baby pinks and pale blues – the way they melt into one another.
Crystals and rock formations, the colours, the paths – such queer combinations! Trees branching and how their leaves droop. They give me a sense of fragility and insecurity, yet their trunks are so thick and strong. Older than many of us; genderless and all have a unique story to tell. Spirals in nature. Ocean waves crashing or gusts of wind. They’re infinite, unapologetic and don’t change direction for anyone.
Birds of paradise are the best examples. The males have the most extravagant feathers and they are basically drag queens that put on a show of flamboyance and campness. Each have their own little dance ritual to show off their feathers that they’re so proud of to attract females. I see myself in many birds of paradise! There’s volcanoes, storms, the way the wind blows, trees moving with the wind, the darkest clouds, lightning, the ocean. Movements in nature and how it moves so gracefully are so feminine even at its most fiercest!
It was only ’til maybe a year and a half ago that I discovered her and realised her queerness. I started to appreciate all the small details that most of us don’t pick up on. We’ve been manipulated into thinking we need material things and new technologies. You now buy everything you think you need and never take a step outside to acknowledge the beauty outside of your house. Deprogram. Learn to unlearn everything you’ve been taught to think you need. Turn off the TV. Get off your phone. Walk. Walk some more. Study leaves. Study rocks. Visualise their paths and how they’ve come to form in this world. Pick up a handful of sand, watch how it falls through your fingers. When you can see a universe in each grain, then you’ve discovered her!”